Who do you call when products don’t work?

Smartphone batteries. Baby cribs. Air bags. Tires. Toys. Peanut butter. Chocolate. Frozen hamburgers. Fireworks. Hoverboards.

All these products and thousands more have been recalled with the help of consumer safety agencies in the United States and other countries due to various hazards.

Some recalls — such as mobile phones with batteries that can ignite or automobile air bags that can explode — make headlines and stir worries across the planet. Others create barely a ripple but nonetheless trigger a process that makes things safer for consumers.

Sometimes a problem comes to light in one country that pressures manufacturers to recall the product there. Other countries may then demand their own recalls if the company doesn’t recall the product there on its own.

Infographic showing major recalls including 5 million Ford Pintos, 31 million Tylenol bottles, 30 million fitness bands, 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7 phones, and 500,000 hoverboards (© AP Images/State Dept.)
(© AP Images/State Dept.)

In the U.S., no matter if millions of units or merely hundreds are involved, product recalls are usually called “voluntary” because the company has agreed to take the action after working with safety regulators.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, with jurisdiction over 10,000 products, oversaw 410 recalls in 2015, all of them voluntary. “We take a lot of pride in that,” says spokesman Scott Wolfson. The agency can force a mandatory recall, but if a company balks, it can take a year or more to resolve the dispute in court while the defective product is still sold.

Other federal agencies police different parts of the marketplace.

The Food and Drug Administration handles recalls for drugs and cosmetics as well as for most food products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture deals with meat, poultry and eggs. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration handles automobile recalls. The federal website recalls.gov links to consumer hotlines for them all.

Woman standing next to car with writing on trunk saying "Keep off my rear I'm explosive!" (© AP Images)
A disgruntled Detroit driver with her 1975 Ford Pinto, recalled because of gas-tank fires in crashes. (© AP Images)

Congress gave the Consumer Product Safety Commission more powers in 2008 and allowed it to levy fines up to $15 million. A manufacturer of dehumidifiers was recently fined that much because its products were found to catch fire and the company did not tell the safety agency when the defect was discovered.

While consumers can report problems, companies themselves bring most defects to the agency’s attention.

One challenge is getting the public to pay attention and bring defective products back to get fixed or replaced. Agencies send repeated postcards to consumers. And Wolfson’s agency now sends recall notices out on Twitter, blogs and other social media to reach consumers. Its staff scouts eBay, Alibaba and other e-commerce sites to make sure recalled products aren’t being peddled there. And finally, it does offer a number for consumers who want to pick up the phone and report a faulty product.